Summary: In the first poem, titled “Questions”, a girl gets an assignment to trace her roots and realizes she can only go back three generations. At home, she asks her grandmother for help. Her grandmother gathers the family together and tells them their story, beginning with their ancestors in West Central Africa who were kidnapped in 1619 and forced on a hellish journey aboard a slave ship. Those who survived were forced into slavery in tobacco fields, fighting to hold onto their memories of home. Their descendants went on to become great people in their new country. By the end of the story, the girl is ready to return to school and finish her story; the final poem is called “Pride”. Includes notes from the authors and the illustrator and the website for the 1619 Project. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The award-winning authors have crafted an empowering collection of poems that doesn’t shy away from harsh histories, but also celebrates an African history that is often overlooked.
Cons: I wish there were more resources listed; the 1619 Project website has books connected to the project, but no others.
Summary: This illustrated poem recounts the history of African Americans, beginning with their capture in Africa and continuing through enslavement, emancipation, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, the Hip-Hop era, the election of Barack Obama, and the Black Lives Matter movement. There are mentions and depictions of many famous Black writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists. Each section embodies one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and concludes by naming it. Includes a two-page author’s note with additional information about Kwanzaa and her connection to it, a four-page timeline with additional information about the events in the book, and a list for further reading. 64 pages; grades 1 and up.
Pros: This amazing book traces the history of African Americans with concise but beautiful language that will inspire readers to dig more deeply into the events and people named. The vibrant illustrations portray what’s going on in the text realistically but with a touch of imaginative fantasy. There aren’t nearly enough Kwanzaa books, and this one would make an excellent resource; it could be read all at once or spread out over the seven days of the holiday.
Cons: Some reviewers recommended this for ages 4-8. It’s a long book with lots of information, which I think would be more appreciated by older readers of any age.
Summary: In this follow-up to One Last Word, Nikki Grimes focuses on the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. The book begins with an introduction to the history of the period and to the poetry form Grimes uses called The Golden Shovel, in which she uses the poems of others to inspire her own poetry. The poems are presented in three sections: “Heritage”, “Earth Mother”, and “Taking Notice”. They’re bookended with poems in the voice of a middle school girl, skeptical when her teacher hands her books on the women of the Harlem Renaissance, then empowered after she reads them. Includes biographical information about the poets and the illustrators, sources, and an index. 144 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: Like One Last Word, this book is an amazing resource for learning about poets of the Harlem Renaissance, in this case women who have pretty much been forgotten. The Golden Shovel seems incredibly difficult, but Nikki Grimes proves herself a master of the form. The artwork by so many different illustrators perfectly illuminates the poems.
Cons: How did One Last Word not win any Coretta Scott King recognition? I’m rooting for this book to remedy that.
Summary: Reha feels pulled in two directions, spending her weekdays with her mostly white friends at school and her weekends with her family’s Indian community. Like many 13-year-olds, she feels like her parents–particularly her mother–don’t understand what she’s going through. Then her mom is diagnosed with leukemia, and Reha suddenly feels like she would give just about anything to go back to life the way it was before. As she and her father try to navigate hospital visits and caring for Amma while still dealing with work and school, Reha sometimes feels pushed to the breaking point. Friends, family, the Indian community, and the boy she’s had a crush on help get her through. When the unthinkable happens, Reha isn’t sure she will make it, but Amma has found a way to communicate and to let her daughter know that she has understood what she’s going through, and will somehow always be a part of her life. 224 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: Keep the Kleenexes handy as you make your way through this amazing novel in verse. It’s so much more than just a sad story, though: it’s a story of the immigrant experience of feeling caught between two worlds as well as a realistic middle school story with lots of fun 1983 details (especially the music!). I’m a little skeptical of Goodreads’ mock Newbery list, but this book is currently at #2.
Cons: This book came out in February, and I pretty much decided not to read it because it sounded like too much of a downer. I’m so glad it got enough Newbery buzz to make me change my mind, as I found it ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book.
Summary: When Nurah’s father announces he has taken a new job and is moving the family from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, Nurah is heartbroken to leave her best friend and her grandparents. At her new school in Georgia, all she wants to do is blend in, but eating lunch by herself under a stairwell is lonely. Joining the swim team leads to a new friendship that changes Nurah’s feelings about school, and she’s motivated to work hard to become a champion swimmer like her older brother, Owais. When Owais is the target of a bullying incident at the pool that turns violent, and her father is questioned by the FBI following a terrorist incident, Nurah learns some difficult truths about being Muslim in America. But she also learns to help her brother overcome his trauma to get back in the pool and to be true to herself and her heritage. Includes an author’s note tying her personal experiences to the story; a glossary, and a recipe for aloo kabab. 352 pages grades 3-7.
Pros: A beautiful novel in verse that delves into many different issues, not only with Nurah and her family, but with her new friend Stahr, who has an abusive father. While not every reader has had Nurah’s experience of moving to an unfamiliar new country, many will relate to her wish to blend in while at the same time learning to appreciate her unique qualities.
Cons: I appreciate the brevity and economy of words of a novel in verse, but it’s also a format that makes it difficult to explore in depth the many topics (immigration, bullying, racial profiling, miscarriage, domestic abuse, etc.) that were included in this story.
Summary: A young girl discovers a treefrog in the garden outside her new home. As the two travel through the seasons together, she makes discoveries about both the frog and herself. It’s summer when she moves in. Some kids come to play, but they’re too noisy for both her and the frog. When school starts, she meets a boy who feels like more of a kindred spirit, and she brings him to meet the frog. The two friends enjoy winter, and in the spring, their patience is rewarded when they see the treefrog once again. Each page offers some treefrog facts as well as a poem and illustration. Includes a page of questions and answers that gives more treefrog information. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This delightful picture book functions as both a friendship story and a nonfiction book about treefrogs…and is narrated with Joyce Sidman’s simple but beautiful poetry.
Cons: No additional resources for further research.
Summary: Bear takes readers through a tour of his forest, beginning in the early spring and traveling through the year until he settles in for a long winter’s nap. Each spread features a poem and a list of about 12-15 items (mostly other animals) to find in the illustration. The last few pages are a “nature trail”, with a dotted line connecting circular pictures taken from the main illustrations; kids can turn back to find where they came from on the previous pages. Also includes a list of nature resources and poetry resources (all websites). 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This utterly charming book feels like a throwback to an earlier era. It made me want to brew a cup of tea, wrap up in a cozy afghan, and snuggle in with small children on either side of me to read some poems and hunt through the illustrations for the hidden objects.
Cons: At a little over a foot tall, this book may not fit on every library’s shelves.
Summary: Each two-page spread has a watercolor illustration of the tree in its natural habitat with animals that live in or near it, a free-verse poem, and several paragraphs of information about the tree. The “wisdom” aspect of trees is emphasized, showing the remarkable ways trees defend themselves, maintain Earth’s balance, and even communicate with each other. Includes an author’s note; additional information about each tree in the book and the future of forests; how to help forests; glossary; and sources. 48 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This gorgeous science book has some pretty mind-blowing information about trees that scientists are just beginning to discover. It certainly gave me a new appreciation for trees, and it will undoubtedly have the same effect on younger readers.
Cons: It will take a pretty dedicated tree enthusiast to get through the entire book. But the good news is, if this tree book doesn’t grab you, there are a couple dozen more to choose from this year.
Summary: “Imagine your house is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing. Your family and pets are safe, so don’t worry about them.” With this assignment, a class starts thinking about what’s important to them: a handknit sweater, a photo, a lock of hair, a collection. The kids express themselves in poems inspired by the ancient Korean poetry form sijo. Their presentations spark comments and debate among their classmates as they contemplate what they value…and even get their teacher to change her mind. 72 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Not quite long enough to be a novel in verse, this illustrated collection of poems is easy to read, but not simple, and will surely engage students in conversation long after they’ve turned the last page. I loved Linda Sue Park’s final statement in her author’s note about sijo: “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.”
Cons: It would have been helpful to have the speaker in each poem identified.
Summary: Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied about her size for many years–by her classmates, her brother, and her mother, who is pushing her to have bariatric surgery. Things get worse when her best friend moves away the summer before sixth grade, and Ellie has to face middle school alone. Fortunately, a new girl next door becomes a friend, and Ellie’s sympathetic dad takes her to a therapist who helps her explore her emotions and learn to stand up for herself. It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do for Ellie’s family, but by the end she is feeling empowered to confront some of the bullies and to stop hiding who she really is. Includes a brief author’s note explaining how she based Ellie’s bullying on her own experiences. 256 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: I inhaled this novel in verse in a single sitting and can’t wait to share it with students at my school. I commend Nancy Paulsen (mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements) for seeing this as a middle grade book instead of YA. I think it will be a story that many fifth, sixth and seventh graders will take to heart and that will be invaluable to them as they navigate middle school and body image issues.
Cons: As much as I loved the verse format, I think its brevity made some of the work done in therapy seem a little quick and easy.